Thursday 26 April 2018

Don't Bam Tennent's

Yesterday I happened to notice the tweet mentioned in this great article in the Daily Record.  Our dear friends BrewDog, thought it might be awesome to have a pop at the great Scottish icon Tennent's Lager, by suggesting that anything you do would be better that drinking good old TL.

 Very droll I thought and promptly forgot about it.

They are made of sterner stuff though over at Wellpark and they responded with the following:

The subsequent comments by the Record's readers are well worth a look. As one said "Come at the King then you best not miss." BrewDog subsequently removed the tweet.Tennent's 1; BrewDog 0.

I might just have a glass of TL on the way to the station today on that account. I fondly remember drinking pint screwtops of TL in my youth and still have one now and then. Well not screwtops sadly, but TL still.

I thank the Daily Record for reminding me of this tweet. Funnily it brought to mind the daily trot to the newsagent for a copy of same when I was a child. I kind of grew up with the Record, another Scottish icon.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Curious Incident of the Dog That Barked Rather a Lot

There has been quite a lot written about the CAMRA AGM and the members failure to vote by the required 75% in favour, of Special Resolution 6. (SR6).  (The 75%, for the avoidance of doubt is set as part of UK Company Law.)

This resolution, along with its fellows was  a part of the Revitalisation Project and as a whole were intended to modernise the Campaign going forward.  This failure, despite the fact that all other resolutions were passed, has been greeted with a great deal of hysteria by many who should know better. Roger Protz on the other hand, has summed it all up rather well and I recommend that you read what he says before reading the rest of my tuppence worth.

As someone who was actually there when the result was announced in Coventry - and is a CAMRA activist and, I like to think, a moderniser - I voted in favour of all the resolutions. So what was the reaction at the AGM when this was announced?  Well actually very little. All of us who were modernisers had actually feared a much worse result and were rather upbeat we had come so far. These feelings were further enhanced by the Conference which sets policy, passing a number of very progressive motions, including acceptance of cask breathers and lifting the ban on keg beers at our festivals and much more.

So does SR6 matter? Well, it was a kind of catch all that frankly could have been more cleverly worded. It intended, I think, to show that CAMRA accepts that its remit should be formally widened:

To approve the insertion of the following Article 2(e)
in CAMRA’s Articles of Association: “2(e) to act as the
voice and represent the interests of all pub-goers and
beer, cider and perry drinkers;”

De facto of course, that is already the case and the acceptance of other resolutions and motions, while not exactly making SR6 moot, means that the intention of SR6 is more or less covered elsewhere. I would add that those that fondly imagine that the passing of SR6 would result in some kind of sudden support for say, including keg beers in the GBG for example, are likely to have been pretty well disappointed.Even if it had been passed, it would have taken a while for its implications to have worked through the system and there would have been no certainty about how that would have played out.

The hysteria I mentioned elsewhere cannot go without comment.   Pete Brown set out his stall and frankly if I was making a case to reject SR6 due to the parlous state of cask ale - the main raison d'être - then I could have taken almost all of what he said as a bloody good reason to stick to our knitting.  In parts it could be used more like a speech for the status quo. Take this for example:

"What I find most alarming is that no one in the cask ale industry wants to ‘fess up that there’s a serious issue here. This is a recipe for disaster, like the middle-aged man who won’t go and get that pain checked out at any the doctor because he’s scared of what he might hear, and anyway it might just go away. Last year. when I wrote about the quality issues around cask in London, I was comprehensively attacked from all corners of the industry, in a number of different publications.  Now, the plight of cask is actively being covered up"

For those that think the campaign for real ale has been won and that this failure is a card ripping up matter, (and I include my good friend Beers Manchester here,) just look at what Pete has to say and I agree with him in spades about it. We can never be complacent about cask conditioned beer. With a live product, the battle will never be won. It just goes on with high points and low points. Are we at a high? Not at all. More choice has not brought better quality at point of dispense. There is much more still to do and maybe that is why some people had doubts.  There is also a cadre that believe that we should not be supporting cider and perry as well as a few diehards, so maybe the result is a lot better than could reasonably have been expected. Please remember 72.6% of the 18,000 were in favour.

I also recommend that you look at Boak and Bailey. They have summed a lot of this up although I don't like the title which suggests the way forward will now be difficult. The door is certainly, while not fully open, pretty much ajar. Progress can now be made without SR6 and there is always next year.

Finally there are those that worry about the election of one traditionalist member to the Executive Committee. All I can say is until I read her manifesto, I'd never heard of her and in any case, is one traditionalist so bad to have as an opposing voice? You need different opinions on a committee, even when they are a minority of one.

This was a very progressive AGM and Conference. The Campaign has moved towards the future. Those on either side that tear up membership cards must of course suit themselves, but really could do with sitting down and looking at the evidence before doing so.

I'll finish with a quote by Martyn Cornell on Twitter.  

The call for change failed by about 900 votes. About 2,000 Camra members die every year.

Not a nice thought, but likely true enough. The Campaign will change further. One way or another.

I thought Coventry and the AGM venue were both places I would go a long way to avoid in the future.


Saturday 14 April 2018

Book Review - Good Beer Guide Belgium

What is there to tell you about beer drinking in Belgium that you don't already know or can readily find out?   I'm guessing that was on the minds of the authors of this book when they say in the chapter entitled Beer in the Belgian Way(s) and aimed squarely at the armchair drinker or beer rating site aficionado, "Unlearn what you have learned, as it is unlikely to be correct." Now such advice when given by many could be safely disregarded as bravado at best, or chutzpah at worst, but when it comes from authors of the standing of Tim Webb and Joe Stange, you have to sit up and take notice, for these guys know their stuff.  Tim first produced a Good Beer Guide Belgium in 1992 and Joe is well known for his beer blog and is the author of "Around Brussels in 80 Beers", so they have a track record that gives you confidence from the get go.

The book itself, beautifully illustrated in colour throughout,  is fairly conventionally arranged and no worse for that. With a a foreword by the authors, a personal message  from Tim, whose last edition this is, a historical chapter about how Belgian beer has developed and expanded, one on food, travel and transport, beer styles (of course) and much more; everything is covered. Stylistically the book is written in a very easy going and approachable way.  It avoids being over technical and instead gently suggests to the reader how a beer might present. It outlines but does not define. There are handy little hints dotted about so you know how to order beer, whether you tip or not, where one might stay and some helpful notes about beer making and so on.  They even warn you about the comparative lack of cash points in Belgium. Who knew? All essential and appropriate but the meat of this book is, undoubtedly, the brewery listings and where you can best go to drink the beers. This is where the dedicated beer fiend and the beer curious alike will be most at home. The brewery section is arranged alphabetically and it is here you can gain an insight into what you might want to sample and what indeed you might want to avoid.  Each brewery has a bit of a pen picture, a listing of the beers with tasting notes and a helpful star rating system. One star earns you "Life is too short" and five stars are deemed "Amongst the best in the world".  Points in between are easily understood, so the reader will be gently guided in the right direction. This though is a book with opinions and the authors aren't afraid to air them. The description for Stella Artois (a two star beer) tells us the beer is "Impressively clean and beautifully presented" and then adds waspishly "wet air". Westmalle Tripel on the other hand gets five stars and is described as "the stuff of eulogies".

 The part of the book listing pubs and bars is perhaps the section that the dedicated travelling beer drinker will find most useful. Alphabetically arranged by towns within regions, once you have decided where to go, the book becomes an essential vademecum when perusing pub or bar beer lists which can, in some cases, stretch to 300 or so beers.  The authors point out - and this is important - that they did not seek samples from breweries, but rather, went there and bought the beers. They are also keen to opine that, in an age of obfuscation and blurring of lines, often by large conglomerates,  the place of origin of beer remains important, as it adds to authenticity. This is particularly so in Belgium, where beer in all its diverse forms so often has a clear link to its local or regional roots.

 The best thing that can usually be said about a guide book is that it makes you want to go there, to check it out and to see if it really is like that. This book ticks all these boxes in spades and it will add a bit of genuine insight to the keenest Belgian beer afficionado, the armchair ticker, or those that aspire to travel there and see for themselves. I thoroughly recommend it.

The Good Beer Guide Belgium is published by the Campaign for Real Ale Ltd. who provided me with this preview copy.

Publication date: 16th April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-85249-341-7
RRP: £14.99

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Slipping in for a Pint

A roaring coal fire, a busy little bar with banter flowing, comfy bench seating and a living room like atmosphere probably tells you that the pub is owned by Samuel Smith.  Add in a dismal, rain sodden  Bank Holiday Monday and all you have to worry about is whether the locals will welcome you, ignore you, or just be puzzled by your presence. Read on and all will be revealed.

The Slip Inn in deepest Milnrow is rather a neat little pub from the outside. Even as the rain battered down, it had an air of cheerful permanence that belied the weather. Solidly stone built, unusually it didn't have bay windows on each side of the front door, but two smaller ones apiece, rather like a schoolchild's drawing.  A small corridor - and it is pretty damn small here - reveals a couple of dinky little rooms off to the left, one with a smouldering coal fire and one without and the bar ahead of you, facing the main room which is comfortable with solid cast iron tables, bench seating and assorted regulars, all watched over by a rather diminutive barmaid who greeted us civilly enough.  The customers did their best to ignore us, but you could tell that our presence there puzzled them somewhat. And why wouldn't it? What indeed were we doing there at all?  I can empathise with that sentiment.  We could hardly have been on holiday after all and did kind of stick out a bit. OK. A lot.

Sadly there was no mild, dark or light on the bar. While E took a seat, I could have chosen Sovereign, OBB (keg) Stout and on the lager side, Double Four, Alpine or Taddy Lager. I ordered the stout while E plumped for a half of Taddy Lager. The locals resumed their banter which had died down slightly. There was a spot of minor effing and jeffing, but the barmaid shushed that from time to time. The edicts of Humphrey on this subject, clearly displayed on the usual notice, were being taken much more in the breach than the observance, but it was low level harmless stuff. Banter was of the "Where's so and so?" and the like, but mostly it was just the easy familiarity of those who had known each other for years and could readily pass the time with one another. One fellow seemed the ringleader of the denizens, but was a bluff, pleasant sort. In fact everyone was just enjoying themselves harmlessly. The accents were rural Rochdale - sort of Lancastrian - but not quite.  The fire - no shortage of coal when Humph is paying - emitted a fearsome radiated heat, causing one woman to suddenly rise and flee. In response to enquiries, she remarked about being boiled alive. It was a fair point and she lurked about, not quite sure where to go, while we, a bit further away, just enjoyed it.

As time ticked on, one or two left and one or two arrived. One customer was ribbed for his need to leave to be home for his tea, promptly at five, but he shrugged that off easily enough. It was all pretty easy going and while nobody spoke to us, nobody was remotely unpleasant.  Around five o'clock the excitement of the early leaver was augmented by a barmaidy shift change.  A few pleasantries were exchanged and the job was done. Everything lurched on much as before. My stout was fine. A bit like Guinness with actual stout characteristics. You know, roast barley, hops, malt. That sort of thing. E enjoyed her Taddy, though she would have preferred Pure Brewed which wasn't available.

Much to the astonishment of our fellow drinkers, we had another. I topped my glass up with further half of stout, while E, daringly, had a Double Four which she pronounced as inferior to Taddy. So now you know.

We left shortly after, no doubt to the relief of the others. Would I hurry back? No.  Was it unpleasant? Not at all. 

I wonder what Humphrey's coal bill is like? He seeems to allow generous use of it.

What about bottles I hear you ask. Didn't spot any. Also if you want to get there by bus, all required info is on the photo if you look hard enough.

Monday 9 April 2018

The Loveliest of All

I rarely write in any detail about Manchester pubs, but I've been meaning to say a few words about the Unicorn in Church St for quite some time.

This former Bass house is one of the few remaining traditional multi-roomed pubs of what could be said to be the old school. Along with the Hare and Hounds in Shudehill and the Millstone in Thomas St and maybe one or two others in the same broad area, the Unicorn is the haunt of those of a certain age who have been around the block a bit. It is rough and ready and for many it will be daunting, as it is a no holds barred, old fashioned but attractive, city centre boozer of a type that was all too common in the days when I lived in Liverpool, but nowadays is a bit of an endangered species. It is invariably rammed.

My last visit was unplanned and perhaps not the best date to choose. While E and I awaited a table at a Northern Quarter restaurant, we had 45 minutes to kill, so nipped in for a pint, completely overlooking that this most traditional of pubs was celebrating St Patrick's evening and was a lot more chokka than it usually is - and it is never not full. Fighting our way through the throng of smokers at the door, we were nearly bowled over by the Fields of Athenry at top amplified volume. An almost impenetrable wall of celebrants made progress onwards and inwards a bit of a challenge. To the uninitiated this would seem like a near impossible task, but a wriggle here and an "excuse me" there and we were in and within sight of the bar. To me there is only one drink to order here and it isn't Guinness, though there was plenty of that in evidence. No. Draught Bass it must be, for the Unicorn, in a nod to its previous ownership, stocks Bass as its regular beer.

The bar is broadly horseshoe in shape, with one closed off end, a small room beyond that and to the right off the main corridor, a larger rectangular area split into several distinct parts, with a neat snug like area in the front.  It is all wood, leather and brass, with the passageways rather too narrow to comfortably squeeze past the stand up drinkers who invariably huddle there as they most likely have done for many years.  Additionally on this busiest of nights, every space was taken. Clutching our drinks we made for the corridor from the crammed bar. I watched as E deftly moved out and with alarm noted as she did, that a fellow imbiber turned to watch her go, in the process swiping a drink off a ledge and onto the floor.  I was unprepared though to be accused the crime and warily protested my innocence. These things can easily get out of hand, but a worrying situation was defused and all became sweetness and light as it became clear the drink was unattended and unclaimed. Its demise and therefore who dun it, didn't matter. Whew.

From our new perch at the bottom of the stairs leading to the accommodation above and opposite the juke box we watched three rather inebriated young women swig wine like beer and shriekingly discuss moving on to the Millstone, while still singing off key along to the music. A warning by a staff member to "keep it down" was to no avail and frankly, above the merry din, a touch pointless. They stayed for another and like as not, another after that.  Around us there was young and old. The young - mostly pretty pissed - seemed just as at home as their older counterparts who rigidly claimed their usual spot while being inadvertently jostled. Staff filled glasses at lightning speed and the tide of people ebbed and flowed.  It was all very jolly and just a tad edgy.

A point to note is that actually, though the noise and numbers were enhanced by the occasion, it is pretty much like this all the time, with an amazing array of divergent characters; ne'er do wells, respectable types, older couples and everything in between can be found within. In short it is a proper pub of a type that was common once, but isn't now, so well worth a visit for that alone. And you get to try Draught Bass.

Do keep your wits about you though.

Another plus is that the staff are very quick and friendly.  You never have to wait long for a drink in here. Also handy for the bus station, local bus stops and the rest of the Northern Quarter.

Why no photo of the pub? I hadn't actually intended to write about it and these days, you can't just nab a photo off the web. Draught Bass it is then and not even from the same evening. I'm rubbish at this.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

The Thirties Revisited

There's always something new and unexpected in the pub game, no matter how long you have been involved in it. Having said that, you don't really expect the unexpected in a Sam Smith's pub. OK, there may be a set of bizarre promulgations adorning the walls, advising you in polite but specific terms as to what you can or can't do and what will or will not be tolerated. Trust me though, in Sam's that's a norm - scarcely to be remarked upon at all, but rather, to be embraced as part of the ambiance - a kind of par for the course and an odd but somehow comforting enhancement to the overall experience.  What is not expected though, especially in Milnrow suburban Rochdale, which, and I'm being kind here, just isn't that sort of place, is to be accosted with, as you walk through the door and into the pub, "Table for two is it?".

The Kingsway Hotel is a very imposing building, more or less isolated on its own off a main road with an industrial estate behind it and little housing around it. It does though have a Hungry Horse more or less opposite it, so at least there is passing trade and the potential to attract it, though judging by the emptiness of the Kingsway, too much of it is doing passing and not enough doing stopping. I took the lovely E with me my for this bank holiday outing, in what can best and accurately be described, as pissing rain.  The car park is pretty big and was more or less empty as we emerged, dripping onto the parquet floor, into a rather fetching, but decidedly bare 1930's room, with a bar to left - which most unSamslike - was illuminated by only two keg fonts, one dispensing Old Brewery Bitter and the other Taddy Lager. There is a well appointed dining room straight ahead, with, on this visit, one table silently occupied by three people. The owner of the enquiring voice turned out to be the landlady, a rather charming Scots lass from South Glasgow, who seemed rather taken aback by me being taken aback by her greeting.  The confusion was sorted out when I explained we only wanted a drink. Chattily she explained that the emphasis was now on food, hence the paucity of the draught offering.  I expressed my surprise at this as it seemed at odds with Humphrey Smith's usual policy and was advised in turn that it was his idea and her partner , a chef of 17 years standing had been encouraged to up the food offering which is all cooked on the premises. Well I never.

I observed that the place was, shall we say, empty other than the disconsolate lone diners who were quite possibly enjoying Brown Windsor soup followed by Woolton Pie or some such. Our chatty host explained that it was Humph's policy to open on Bank Holidays, so open they were - until six. Looking around the pub interior and building are superb. Built in 1938, it is a fantastic example of inter war pub design. Totally unspoilt, it has a plethora of original features, such as the aforementioned parquet floor, a working revolving door, panelled walls, proper fireplaces, as as well as the rather grand lamps of the time. A bit of a worm hole to the past in fact. An overspill dining room was again tastefully decorated in the same comfortable 1930s manner. Local photos enhanced the experience, but the eerie quiet must have made dining a rather soulless experience and one which I was glad I hadn't signed up to.

As I looked around and E chatted to the boss woman, the chef, bored shitless no doubt, joined us for a chat while I perused the rather unambitious menu. Oddly given the ambition, it was mostly standard British pub grub, though E approvingly noted the inclusion of liver and onions.  In addition to the two keg offerings, there was a full range of Sam's bottles available at under a fiver each and even the revered Yorkshire Stingo was on sale at a modest - for this beer - £9 a pop. 

You know, somehow I liked this place a lot. The landlady was a delight, the building was superb, but I can't help but thinking they'd be better off trying to attract drinkers, re-open the closed vault and if dining really is the game, up the offering a bit.  I'd love to be here when it is going like a fair, but I've an idea a time machine might well be needed to achieve this.

I usually poke a bit of gentle fun at the Sam's pubs I review, but this time it just seems right to wish it well, as to lose such an architectural gem would be a great shame.

Apparently the pub only opens Wednesday to Sunday, bank holidays excepted.  

The landlady was a big fan of Humph who she thought rather a hard working and nice fellow. You can only speak as you find I suppose.